Disappearing rooftop guardians struggle to survive
by Cheng Lu, Tang Jingchen, Li Jiarui, Jing Huihui
As more traditional houses are replaced by high-rise residential buildings, the tile cat, an ancestral rooftop guardian, is fast disappearing.
A folk riddle in Yunnan Province goes like this: "It looks like a cat or a tiger. It has round eyes and a big mouth. It sits on the roof of everyone's house. What is it?"
Zhang Cai is among the few remaining people who knows the answer.
Zhang lost his workshop and business making and selling the ceramic cats three years ago after the centuries-old building in Kunming's Xiaoyao Village was ordered to be demolished.
Zhang Cai is making a tile cat at his home in the outskirts of Kunming, capital of southwest China's Yunnan Province.
He and his family were moved into a nearby residential building. However, this did not stop him from passing down the skills he learnt from his ancestors.
The ceramic cats, which feature round eyes and a large mouth with sharp teeth, were traditionally set on the rooftops of houses.
But they are far more than mere ornaments. Local people believed that they could bring great fortune to the house owner and eat "evil spirits" to stop them entering.
"Nowadays most people live in high-rise apartments. Tile cats are no longer made or sold," said Zhang, who has made the cats for around 30 years.
Although the superstitions about the home guardians have faded in modern times, many young people regard them as cute pieces of art, which may give them a chance of survival.
Zhang has purchased electric kiln and other equipment to continue making the cats in his new home.
In order to attract young people, he has created more than 20 new styles of ceramic cats.
In the past, the cat would sit on rooftop, but Zhang has created them many different positions, while others have more heads or even a fishtail.
Nine-year-old Wu Yin is studying with Zhang. "I thought they look good," Wu said of her first impression of the tile cats. She decided to challenge herself to learn the complicated skills involved in making the cats.
It takes around two hours to turn a lump of clay into a finished tile cat, involving molding, modifying and firing in the kiln.
A semi-finished tile cat is put into the electiric kiln.
The head and the body are air-dried before being fixed together. Then Zhang adds the eyes, ears, hands, and feet.
"I am glad to see my daughter is interested in making tile cats. I hope she will be able to pass down the intangible cultural heritage as Zhang is doing," said Wu's mother.
Zhang hopes to set up a school to teach others how to make tile cats.
"Children have their own ideas and inspiration. They can constantly bring forth new designs," Zhang said.
Dilapidated houses still stand in the village not far away from Zhang's new home. Lonely tile cats sit on their rooftops, seeming disappointed at not having a home and family to guard.
"They have protected their owners for hundreds of years. Now it's our turn to secure their future," Zhang said.
(Photos credit: Xinhua/Jing Huihui )
(Editor: Yang Jianxiang)